Four questions facing Sebelius
October 30th, 2013
02:25 AM ET
6 months ago

Four questions facing Sebelius

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is expected to be grilled Wednesday when she becomes the highest-ranking official to testify about the problems plaguing the HealthCare.gov website as well as questions surrounding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Here are four of the questions she is likely to have to answer.

1. When did she find out about the problems with the website?

Last Friday in Austin, Texas, Sebelius was asked at what point did she realize the system wasn’t going to operate the way it was envisioned.

“Well actually I didn’t realize it wouldn’t be operating optimally before the launch. I think we knew that if we had had another six months we would probably test further, but I don’t think that anyone fully realized that both volume caused problems, but volume also exposed some problems.”

Andrew Slavitt from the contractor QSSI testified last week before a congressional committee the company noted software problems before the launch. Cheryl Campbell, an executive of a different contractor CGI, told the same hearing top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the part of the Department of Health and Human Services responsible for setting up the site and implementing the law, were continually briefed. CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday “We had tested the website, and we were comfortable with its performance.” So what did HHS officials know about any problems and were White House officials notified of any problems?

In an interview with CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta last week, Sebelius was asked when President Obama first knew of the problems. “I think it became clear fairly early on, the first couple of days...” Gupta then asked: not before that? She answered “no sir.”

2. Why wasn’t more testing done?

Contractors working on the website say they warned CMS officials about some of the problems they were seeing and that only two weeks was allotted for full testing before the Oct. 1 launch. QSSI's Slavitt said during his testimony last week the company had informed CMS more testing was necessary and added "months would have been nice." However, none of these red flags were raised by contractors or the government in a congressional hearing in September.
Some of the most comprehensive system testing came just weeks before the Oct. 1 launch, and the Washington Post has reported at that time problems were detected.

Officials from several contractors said it was CMS’ decision to go ahead and go live with the site.
Sebelius and other administration officials have blamed the initial volume as a major reason for the inability of people to set up accounts and use the site, although other problems have been reported as ongoing, such as bad enrollment information being sent to insurance companies.

“We tested to a level that was five times the level that Medicare.gov, a well-known operating website, had ever had. We thought if you increase that volume five times that’s probably the maximum hit you would get at one time particularly with a brand new site,” Sebelius said last week. “We were just wildly incorrect. Numbers so far exceeded that now there are very specific diagnostics in place.”

She told CNN’s Gupta that if “we had an ideal situation and could have built the product in, you know, a five-year period of time, we probably would have taken five years. But we didn't have five years. And certainly Americans who rely on health coverage didn't have five years for us to wait. We wanted to make sure we made good on this final implementation of the law.”
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is holding Wednesday's hearing, said "The testing was so poor ... in essence, it's like contractors building a house, but the guy building the first level, the first story didn't know that the basement is on the next lot. I mean, there was just no connectivity. We heard those complaints from a number of different private sides. But at the end of the day, this was not ready. It's been a disaster in the making," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room.

3. How much will the fixes cost?

HHS officials have not said how much the fixes to HealthCare.gov may cost. When CMS announced on Friday QSSI was being brought on as the general contractor overseeing the changes, officials said the company's original contract was being expanded but would not say how much more it may be paid. Also CMS officials have repeatedly refused to divulge information about who is doing the "tech surge" which is bolstering the existing staff working on the site to improve the technical capabilities and operations.

"We are bringing in people from both inside and outside the government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov," Sebelius says in her prepared testimony.

Upton said she will also be pressed on how much this will cost. "We know it's in the hundreds of millions of dollars what they've spent so far. We don't know if there are penalties that are going to be imposed because they didn't get this thing done right. We have no clue what the additional cost will be to try and get it right as the secretary said by the end of next month. We'll try to get an answer to that," he told CNN.

4. What will she say to those whose policies are being cancelled?

Upton claims millions of people are receiving notices their current insurance policies are being cancelled because they don't comply with minimum standards set by the Affordable Care Act. These are people who have individual policies - not ones under their employer which is the vast majority of Americans or have Medicaid or Medicare. The Obama Administration estimates about 5% of the nation have individual policies which often have less generous coverage, such as not including hospital or mental coverage, as well as higher deductibles making them much cheaper.

The White House was criticized Tuesday by Republicans because President Obama had often said that people who like their insurance policies and want to keep them will be able to. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fought back against that criticism saying if people had their plans before the Affordable Care Act was passed they are "grandfathered in" - meaning by law they can keep them. For others who have obtained this insurance after Obamacare became law, those are the plans that are subject to possible cancellation.

Sebelius is likely to get a question similar to one posed by Upton on CNN on Tuesday saying those facing cancellation should be given more time to enroll in an alternative plan. "Why not allow them to have that choice for the next year knowing that this roll out has been so poorly designed?"

Her response could mirror what Carney said on Tuesday: these people deserve better coverage as soon as possible. "Those are the Americans who have been most subject to the wild vagaries of the system as it existed before the Affordable Care Act, who at the drop of a hat could have lost coverage or been told that their premiums were doubling, or that they would have no longer been able to get coverage for a specific condition because it was preexisting. All that changes come January 1st. "

CNN's Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed to this story


Filed under: Healthcare • Kathleen Sebelius • Obamacare
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Marie MD

    When did you know about. Why didn't you send in the reinforcements earlier even if it would have taken four hours and left other websites in peril.
    Where were you when the Medicare Part D went into place and failed miserably, same as the ACA, in the first few months. You are a Democrat you should have been having these stupid hearings we are now doing because our ego maniacal car thief needs some air time.
    Oh yes, what's the word on Turkey?

    October 30, 2013 06:27 am at 6:27 am |
  2. Pat

    Another serious question, "Why was a no-bid contract awarded to a Canadian based company with ties to the first lady?" My next question has to do with information security, "What assurance do the American people have that all information collection can and will be safe guarded from accidental disclosure?" There are so many avenues upon which hackers can attack ACA systems, and because the programs are new they are most vulnerable.

    October 30, 2013 06:39 am at 6:39 am |
  3. Bill

    "If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period. If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what." – President Obama, July 16, 2009

    October 30, 2013 07:09 am at 7:09 am |
  4. justino

    Obamadontcare

    October 30, 2013 07:09 am at 7:09 am |
  5. A True Conservative

    Sorry to break it to you CNN but employer supplied coverage is also changing. The policy that I have had for years (the est available from my employer) is no longer an option. I am getting different coverage with higher deductables and out of pocket maximums at a higher per month cost to me.

    The real questions for the HHS Secretary are how stupid do you think the American people are and are you a liar, or simply completely incompetent?

    October 30, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  6. the hippies were right

    I have had an individual plan for many years. I have been paying $480 per month with a $2500 deductible. My provider hasn't given me any indication that they are changing anything. I went to the exchange the other day, had no problems getting on the site. Learned with the silver plan I'd pay $360 per mo. with a $2000 deductible. With the bronze plan, I'd pay $280 per mo. with a $5000 deductible. Last I looked there are 314 million people in the country. Interviewing 10 to 20 people on the evening news who have had a bad experience either with their provider or the website isn't a true indication of what's going on in the real world. It's called media hype and sensationalism. CNN your one of the worst!

    October 30, 2013 07:27 am at 7:27 am |
  7. jpmichigan

    Due to the regulation set in the ACA law, most insurances, in order to comply must increase the premiums, whether or not the consumer that has the insurance needs the benefit ( covering children until the age of 26). ACA has made healthcare more expensive for most Americans, while the 49% get it practically free/or free via Medicaid. Seniors (65 and older) are not allowed to purchase insurance via ACA majority of these Americans need supplement insurance to cover the 40% Medicare doesn't (Medicare advantage policies) yet the Government takes from Medicare to help jump start ACA>

    October 30, 2013 07:31 am at 7:31 am |
  8. cumulus

    I'm planning on dropping insurance if possible, paid in hundreds if thousands, only to pay for what I use anyway, all insurance policies are basically catastrophic

    October 30, 2013 07:44 am at 7:44 am |
  9. Gurgyl

    Just fix the web site. It is fixable. Just run on web.

    October 30, 2013 07:51 am at 7:51 am |
  10. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    It will get fixed and the GOP teaparty house members will be out of their jobs next nov, 24 billion dallars thrown down the tiolet with NOTHING to show for it tells me and every American how incompetent the GOP teaparty really is and the GOP needs to be kicked out of office for our own good and the good of the country.

    October 30, 2013 07:54 am at 7:54 am |